Sunday, 31 January 2010

Visit to St-Peter's Basilica

On Saturday our friend Beverly who is visiting from Islamabad wanted to go and visit St-Peter's Basilica. So we took the number 62 bus and went down to the Vatican. Because it is winter and a Saturday not many people around in the Piazza in front of the Basilica, the Christmas tree and the crèche still stand, it should all come down around 2 February. We went through security which is provided, gratis, by Italy, fancy that, Italians pay for the security of another country, while the Swiss Guard stand around in their Medieval costumes looking pretty.
Inside the Basilica it suddenly struck me that it is no more than a museum nowadays, visitors are cordoned off to a circuit which takes them around the central part of the Basilica and out at the other end you go. St-Peter is not used very often except for special days in the church calendar, like Christmas and Easter Sunday, in the Spring mass is said outside in the piazza.
Inside there are gigantic marble statues to several Popes, while a few other Popes dead many decades ago lie in State, they are not all in their coffins down below. No it is not a wax dummy, its a real corpse in all its papal finery lying under the altar of the many side chapels, waiting for Sainthood. Other statues are of Saints like St-Veronica and St-Longinus and of course St-Peter and St-Paul, those two fine jews who just happened to turn Roman Catholic in a nick of time.

Two equestrian statues of interest are of the real political founders of the Roman Catholic Church, without them there would be no St-Peter basilica or much of a Christian church to speak of today, that would be Emperor Constantine and Emperor Charlemagne. The first one made Christianity the official religion of the Empire over all the other religions in 350 AD, when Christianity was still a cult practiced by the plebes and slaves and the second confirmed at a crucial moment in history Christmas Day 730 AD the supreme authority of the bishop of Rome and Christianity as a state religion in Europe when Islam was about to take over in the Mediterranean basin. Bev remarked that it is a very arrogant and pretentious place and that it does not offer a feeling of sanctity and does not invite to prayer. I agree, it is mostly a place for tourists to visit. All in all a bit sad and empty. It looks a lot like what a Roman Temple to the gods of antiquity would have looked like, with the multi-colored marbled floors and gold colored mosaics.

I know a lot of tourists like to visit St-Peter Basilica because it confirms in their mind the supremacy of what they believe and how right they are to believe it too. I remember a different St-Peter when it was still a Basilica used daily for prayers and religious services, you could enter and simply wander around there were priests everywhere ready to hear a confession or help with a blessing or offer a prayer, candles burned as offerings and flowers decorated the side altars and even the main altar reserved for Papal masses. All that is gone today, so sad to see this huge building turned into a tourist attraction, sort of disneyland Christianity, we are probably not far off from Mickey Mouse as some kind of holy figurine.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Opening night

Last night, Saturday 23 January, we went to the Opening of the New Season at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. The first night was the opera Falstaff. The sets were designed in 1964 by Franco Zeffirelli for the Metropolitain Opera house in New York.
This is grand opera with wonderful music and if well staged is a great piece of comedy, it is a masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi.

We arrived at the Opera house and like all great first nights in Rome, it was a throw back to the 19th century, lots of officers in splendid uniforms with silver and gold braids with great cavalry boots and gleaming swords, a traffic jam of shiny expensive limousines, ladies covered in furs and diamonds, gentlemen in tuxedos and white silk scarves and great capes. Lots of paparazzi snapping flash photo at the crowd walking down the piazza in front of the teatro dell'Opera. Because it is the opening night of the new season, the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano came, so in the grand style the Carabinieri Guard of honor in their wonderful parade uniform were present, a red carpet, ornamental trees and exotic flowers, the Corps de ballet, composed of young girls about 8 yrs old in pink tutus was lining the great staircase, it is customary to say to them as you ascend, bello, carini, and they in turn smile demurely. Even the firemen who are present by law at all major representations wore for that night their parade uniform which is a throw back to the 19th century, with great helmet and cape lined in red silk.
The crowd was also something to behold, it had a distinctive flair of a Fellini movies, remember Edmea Tetua. The crowd was not young, Lots of politicians with medals, bankers with medals, aged famous actors of years ago with medals, designers, and of course Italian aristocracy and Knights of Malta. All dressed up in formal wear, more furs, more jewellery, lots of big diamonds and everyone with a blackberry, that you do not turn off. No one was there to listen and see the opera, no this is a social evening, were la bella figura is important, you are there to be seen.

The crowd took forever to sit down and suddenly in this organized chaos, the first bars of the Italian National Anthem, the crowd stands up as one and turns towards the Royal Box, looking up, way up to the President of the Republic and next to him the mayor of Rome who is also the Superintendent of the Opera House. There is something very strange in this old theater, inscriptions to the King of Italy and to the Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini and this Royal Box with the Coat of Arms of the Royal House of Savoy who were voted out of office in 1946 and in it standing there the President of the Italian Republic. Is it a Republic or a Kingdom?
While the anthem was playing, I noticed that most people did not know the words beyond the first two, so most hum along.
Behind us in a box Franco Zeffirelli with his young attendant and Carla Fracci who heads the corps de ballet of the Opera and in deep mauve an elderly actress, once famous, Valentina Cortese, she played in movies by Vittorio de Sica. There was an endless parade of people paying their respects to him. In front of us paparazzi shooting with powerful flash hundreds of photos, we were sitting in between. Beside us an Italian Princess with a fortune in diamonds on her arms. Frankly looking around us the theatre and this evening had a surreal quality. If someone had told me that Nora Desmond and Cecil B. De Mille were present I would have believed them.

It was not a great production, in fact it had all the quality of reheated leftovers slightly mouldy. At the intermission, there was free champagne and chocolates offered by Hotel de Russie, the most expensive premier hotel in Rome, a famous jeweller was also displaying in the foyer different pieces, there was an exhibit of a few Calder modules. All this to give the impression of exclusivity. We could have been in 1950 it was Rome, it was la Dolce Vita.

At the end of the show, we left quickly, while the crowd applauded and cheered Zeffirelli, I do not think it was deserved at all, this was after all a production he had created some 45 years ago, nothing new and it looked cruder. A very disappointing evening all together, but also great human theater, as Falstaff says the world is a stage and we are all actors and clowns. Hopefully the rest of the season will be better.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Scotch Whisky night

In Italy there are lots of wine tasting courses from the very exclusive to the every day mundane in any Enoteca. There are also lots of cooking courses where you usually learn to make pasta and ravioli etc.... However in Rome we have Rachel Rennie, who took it upon herself to give courses on the finer points of Scotch. Rachel is from Glasgow and is knowledgeable in all things related to Scotch, she brings a real passion to her presentation. So as part of one of the many activities of the Canadian Club of Rome CCR, we had a course in Scotch tasting at our place for a small group of members. Now Will decided to go out since he really does not like Scotch and went to see the movie Avatar. I am not a great Scotch drinker myself and until now really did not know very much about it. Rachel called her course ''An Island Tour'', and selected scotches from Jura, the Orkneys, Islay and Skye. She first told us how Scotch is made from malted barley. The barley is soaked in water to begin the germination process and then dried slowly. This conditions the starch in the barley for conversion to sugar and then to alcohol. It is then aged in oak cask which have been once previously used for Sherry or Bourbon, this gives its distinctive style. For the last 200 years this has been the process but what of before that time, well people simply drank it straight from the still. Before the liquid is put into a cask, it has the transparent look of water and smells of perfume. Because sherry and bourbon casks are used this is how you get the pale or dark coloring of scotch.

When drinking scotch if you add a drop of water, it will release even more of the flavours, however if you pour scotch on ice then all the flavors are locked up.

She accompanies her discourse with songs and poetry by Poet Laureate, John Masefield (1878-1967), all very lovely and fun. We also had food to accompany the tasting, French bread to cleanse the palate, Deer paté with one scotch we tasted, hard white cheese with another, pickled herring and smoked trout for the others. Very interesting and shows how scotch goes with food. We also had shortbread, though sweet it blends very well.

In the end I really liked the Talisker from the Isle of Skye 10 years old, which has a smokey taste from the peat used in making it. I also liked the Laphroaig from Islay aged in small quarter bourbon cask.

I did not like the Old Pulteney 12 yrs from Wick, too strong a taste, I found it coarse, nor did I like Isle of Jura again too strong tasting.

On 25 January is Robert Burns birthday, so we celebrated the poet with this fine evening. Learned something and had a good drink. One last point, we also learned that you do not say, are they wearing kilts which is incorrect, but rather I am wearing the kilt or they are wearing the kilt.

See the web site:

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Planning our Spring vacation

Well, it seems my cold is done and I will be able to return to work tomorrow. I have been thinking of buying a new car, not really an extravagance, I buy one every 10 yrs on average, car companies are not making money with me. I could never understand people who change cars every year or every 2 yrs. This time I am looking at either a VW Passat or a BMW series 3. I did look at the Series 7 but at $100,000 dllrs it is a little out of my league. But it is a very nice car, you know the sort you need a chauffeur.
I can go an pick it up at the factory directly when it is ready. Anyway will continue to think about it and see.

We have to plan our trip to Sicily this Spring, we are thinking of visiting Palermo, Cefalu, Monreale, Marsala and then in May to the Festival of Neapolitan Music in Salzburg, Austria. The festival see the website gives all the details. Maestro Riccardo Muti is the director, the theme of the Festival is Naples City of Memories. Last year on the return trip we stopped in Trieste on the Dalmatian coast, this year we are thinking of Padua. Our hotel is reserved in Salzburg, the same as last year.

I also made arrangements today for the puppies to go to the countryside during our trip to Sicily. They can return to the Farm and see their moms and dads and brothers and sisters in Capena, next door is their trainor Lisa so they can also train while in the Paese. As Will says, they will be the best trained puppies or we give them to the Gypsies, it does not impress them at all.

It is shaping up!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

January & February

These are the blah months of the year, how much I dislike them. The New Year always promises on its first day new beginnings
and then life goes on. Several colleagues of mine who I had known some 30 yrs have died over the holidays, many had been sick for a few years, others had retired some time ago. I was surprise to hear the news it all came unexpectedly in the form of an email at work sent to all. I was sad to hear this news because they were people I had known for years and worked with.
They were not old, late fifties and late sixties, memories now.
The weather is always awful at this time of the year, rainy, cold, humid, ideal for the flu, it is important that we be careful not to get run down and over tired, not to get sick.

I got the flu after Will, the apartment can be cold at night but then again let's remember we could be dealing with the weather in Canada with all the slush, snow, ice and wind and minus 30C.

It is not a bad flu, just a mild one but it is unpleasant nonetheless. I think the gray weather is also affecting me, funny how the Sun has an effect on our lives. We have one of these sun lamps in which you look into for 5 minutes a day, it has the effect of giving you a boost. I think it does. So I am taking a few days off to recuperate.

Also reading about Haiti, do not know what to think or say about this situation. Too complex for sound bites, tragic for the people involved in this crisis and who have no options but hope. What is frustrating is the way the media trivialize the situation with the hype reporting, in the let's sell this story approach. Maybe I know too much about this story, it's past and now...

Monday, 4 January 2010

A very Kosher Vegetarian entry

Spain's main export to the world is ham. Currently there is a glut of 40 million hams of all types on the market, so much so that the price has plunged. You are likely to get a ham if you open a bank account, buy a car, a house or anything. Hams are given away as promotional incentives. At the airport duty free section you can buy 2 and get one free. In fact Spain is probably hell for vegetarians, meat is so much part of everyday life. We bought some ourselves an offer to good to resist. A chain of shops is called the Museum of ham, where you can sample ham and sausages, buy cheeses and wines to go with ham. It is not very Kosher but lots of fun with beautiful displays. You should know that ham produced from black pigs fed on acorns is the most expensive at 30 Euros a kilo and ham produced from white pigs fed usual corn or feed diet is less expensive at 9.50 Euros a kilo and more of an every day fare.

dramatic Madrid

On our first night in Madrid, after a violent rain storm, we walked around the hotel area and just behind the Opera House was the Royal Palace. It was fairly late around 10:30pm and the clouds where dispersing. Here are two photos, one of the Ceremonial Court yard of the Royal Palace bathed in rather sharp light and opposite that of the Cathedral c.1993, the inside of the building is gothic, the outside is neo-classical to match the Palace. Given that no one actually lives in the Palace, it has an eerie look. Photos are by Will.

Saturday, 2 January 2010


We returned today 2 January from Madrid, this is our second visit to Spain we truly enjoy our visits there, the culture, the people, the food, the modern infrastructure blended into the old historical architecture and so many other things which makes the visit enjoyable.
Our first visit to Spain was to Barcelona in Catalonia, which is not Spain proper but an autonomous region with its own language and culture. Madrid the Capital in the centre of the Iberic peninsula is really a marvelous city, the airport of Barajas is ultra modern and impressive, modern highways take you into the city and a system of tunnels can take you over 12 Km from one end of the city to the other. Madrid has a modern subway system and in the old centre of Madrid and the Royal neighborhood many streets have been closed to cars. The city has many large parks around the Royal Palace and at the Alcala Gate not to mention many other green areas where people can relax and the great avenues like Gran Via, Paseo del Prado or Recolets where you can stroll. Our Hotel at Plaza San Martin was in the perfect location, minutes on foot from all the major city sites. So many good restaurants, we also discovered that ham was the number one export of Spain. There are so many varieties you almost need a course, but in many specialize shops you can taste several varieties and decide which you like best before you purchase anything. We also went to several Tapas bar and though I was use to the little plates, in Spain the plates are big and there is lots to eat so we learned to order only 2 plates and a glass of wine or beer and then order more if we still had an appetite.
So many other good restaurants, grilled meats is also a specialty as is seafood and paella, everywhere we ate the food was excellent with great service. If you are a vegetarian in Spain you might find yourself in difficulty, vegetables do not appear much on menus except for salads. We got ourselves a little brochure called Restaurantes y Tabernas Centenarias de Madrid, (100 yr old restaurants and taverns of Madrid) see their website

We visited the Royal Palace which is the largest in Europe with close to 3000 rooms, King Juan Carlos and his family do not live there and I understand why. Juan Carlos prefers to live in the suburbs at the Palace of the Zarzuela. The Royal Palace is used for State ceremonial only, the decor is heavy and gaudy, the worst excess of the 19th century in what can only be described as poor royal taste, opposite the Palace, the Cathedral of Madrid is relatively new, Pope John Paul II inaugurated it in 2003. Previously it seems that the Royals used the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, c.1563 or other great Cathedrals in various cities in Spain, like Santiago de Compostela.

We visited the Prado Museum, with its incredible wealth of artwork, was able to see the paintings of Goya, Velasquez and of many other great Spanish artists but also French, German, Flemish, British, Italian painters and sculptures, etc... A beautiful museum, we only saw a small part of it, we will probably have to return. After 2 hours in the museum, we were really tired, too much to see, our eyes were tired and our senses over excited by all this glut of artwork, it was a bit like eating too many sweets, you get indigestion.

The streets illumination at night were spectacular,an orgy of colors, very high tech and colorful. On New Year's Day we walked to the Park of Buen Retiro, which is a former Royal Park opened to the public by King Carlos III on the condition that you could enter if you were washed and properly dressed, which meant that you needed a hat, gloves and a sword, this pretty much restricted the entrance to the aristocracy and the wealthy. It is a beautiful park with a large rose garden and many broad leafy avenues to walk, fountains and statues. It is the only park in the world with a fountain and statue of Lucifer entitled the fallen angel. At this time of the year the trees have no leaves but it is still a peaceful place and very popular with Madrilenos.

All in all we were very impressed with Madrid and its people.